Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - April 22, 2011

On Deadline: 'The Woj' has national interests, way beyond Palo Alto High journalism

by Jay Thorwaldson

Esther Wojcicki, known as "The Woj" to the many hundreds of journalism students who have attended her classes at Palo Alto High School over the years, just received a major new set of honors for her teaching abilities.

Her primary job is "inspiring students to think" and be able to analyze what's important, then write clearly and concisely about it. She is one of several Paly teachers who have created one of the best (if not the best) journalism programs — covering a newspaper, magazines, website and videos — of any high school.

But her personal interests go far beyond Paly to encompass national trends in journalism, education and even the status of copyright law. And she's doing something about those interests.

Last month she received an award from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association citing her "stellar achievement in the teaching of student journalists" at a conference at Columbia University in New York City, the latest of many awards in her career since she became adviser to the Paly student newspaper, The Campanile, in 1984.

The presentation at Columbia was memorable in more than one way: About 50 Paly students — who attend the conference each year — enlivened the normally formal, sedate awards announcement by standing up, cheering and dancing around during her brief acceptance speech, a "California cheering squad."

Over the years I have followed and admired Woj's work at Paly, and have spent time with her classes, sensing the enthusiasm she helps instill in her students and their regard for her. She reminds me of Elizabeth Girdler, who decades ago taught me journalism at Los Gatos High School. She was a courageous defender of the student press who believed that students can be responsible journalists.

Locally, the Columbia award for Wojcicki overshadowed a huge honor given to the Paly journalism program as a whole: Paly was awarded the First Amendment Press Freedom Award by the national Journalism Education Association — shared with two other high schools.

Paly's journalism program will also be featured on the cover of Adobe Systems' national magazine, due out in May.

Beyond Paly, "The Woj" follows the careers of her three daughters: Susan, a senior vice president at Google; Janet, a professor of pediatrics at University of California, San Francisco; and Anne, founder and CEO of 23 & Me, a confidential personal genetics-analysis firm.

She has had some fame with the rise of actor James Franco and author of the book, "Palo Alto," which includes locally based stories of his coming of age in town. Franco was in Wojcicki's journalism classes for three years in the mid-1990s. He sent her a large poster of a photo of the two of them.

Her broader interests focus on two primary areas, each of which she feels has a vital role to play in maintaining a healthy democracy and society.

The first is her involvement in a movement called "Creative Commons," which seeks to open up the copyright laws a bit to allow authors to offer their work in a way that is accessible to anyone without losing the writer's or artist's rights to the work, including "open textbooks."

She is current chair of the Creative Commons' board.

"We're working in territory that has never been charted before," she said of efforts to loosen the body of fairly rigid copyright law that goes back several hundred years.

A recent settlement of a legal action by Google has concerned many persons who fear that "orphan books" — those whose authors cannot be determined or found — may remain inaccessible to the public.

"Who's going to do the digital library?" she asks of the restrictions. "This work belongs to humanity, but we can't get it. ... The whole world is so tied up with monetary things."

Loosening the copyright system a bit is "something for the writers to do, not something done to writers," she said assuringly.

Another major goal of hers is to focus on melding the teaching of English and journalism nationwide, something she has been thinking about for years — and feeling some frustration on a national level.

But her thinking is getting some international attention. The king of Morocco has invited her to be the keynote speaker in June at the second annual UNESCO conference, on "The Future of the Written Word." Will words be shared by computers, hand-held devices, magazines, books, newspapers?

Reading, she notes, is down by 50 percent over past decades. There is widespread awareness of the plight of many newspapers, especially big-city or metro papers.

But she's skeptical about many of the new gadgets, based on surveys she's taken of students and conversations. When the iPads first emerged in the past couple of years, some members of the Innovation Journalism group based at Stanford University and I visited with about 40 Paly journalism students.

None said they planned to buy an iPad, and only a few had tried one. Too clunky. Same with Kindles.

Wojcicki said that pattern is holding true, and that the young people favor having a more powerful laptop combined with an easy-to-carry iPhone-type device.

"And they don't Tweet," she said of the hype about Twitter, a program that limits communications to 140 digits. She even forced a class to sign up with Twitter, and they still didn't use it — in fact, only 10 percent of her students even read the Tweet she sent to them about using the program.

Students are using Facebook, which allows posting of pictures and text. She also has found that many students say they prefer actual textbooks over online textbooks. It gives the students a tangible sense of what they need to master, she said.

Her interest in melding English and journalism education has so far been limited to talks with English teachers. She has found an unexpected level of resistance to the idea of blending some basic journalism into the English curricula, as it would mean changing textbooks over time.

Yet she sees huge advantages. Journalism, she says, integrates all the core curricula of English, writing, social studies, political science. It teaches responsibility, integrity and even about the business of putting out a publication. It prepares one to be a "functioning adult in a democratic society," if taught properly and with trust in the students.

"It teaches you how to preserve and what's the most important thing" from a set of facts.

"It's the beginning of thinking."

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com. He also posts online blogs at www.PaloAltoOnline.com (below the Town Square forum).

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